Al Pessin, a senior Voice of America foreign correspondent, currently based in London, posted this commentary in one of the blogs in The Hill website. He noted that the views expressed were his own.
“The news may be good. The news may be bad. We shall tell you the truth.”
Those words from the Voice of America’s first broadcast became its credo. They were spoken in German in the months after Pearl Harbor, when the United States was under perhaps the greatest threat it has ever faced.
They still reflect the essential American approach to international broadcasting, which has enabled VOA to build substantial credibility and audience worldwide in spite of being an agency of the U.S. government.
Now, bills in both houses of congress threaten to end that.
READ MORE: America doesn’t need varnished truth, Al Pessin, The Hill, May 16, 2014
BBG Watch Commentary
It would be inaccurate to suggest that when the Voice of America’s first broadcast words were spoken, VOA was not under orders to further U.S. foreign policy interests, or that it was not under such orders for many years afterwards. VOA was then considerably more controlled by the U.S. government than it is now and may ever be.
The 1976 VOA Charter finally guaranteed VOA its editorial independence. But while VOA was largely freed from interference from the White House or the State Department, it has become in recent years a virtual private news organization for VOA and International Broadcasting Bureau executives. They are also U.S. government officials and have the power to cut programs, eliminate journalistic positions, and to tell VOA journalists what to broadcasts and what not to broadcast. They have exercised this power with practically no accountability and have mismanaged the organization to such a degree that Congress felt it necessary to try to stop them with the United States International Communications Reform Act of 2014 (H.R. 4490). These executives have almost destroyed VOA English Newsroom and VOA English news reporting, forced experienced and talented reporters to leave, and created one of the worst workplaces for employees in the entire federal government.
Mr. Pessin does not mention any of this in his commentary and some of us are wondering why. Was he perhaps afraid to tell the whole truth?
As for the history of the Voice of America, immediately after World War II, VOA was strictly monitored and directed by the State Department. Later it became part of the United States Information Agency (USIA). In the early years under USIA, interference with VOA news by USIA’s FSOs and State Department officials was substantial, although such interference was also strongly resisted by some VOA journalists and managers from the very beginning. In those years, FSOs were routinely assigned to managerial positions at VOA.
The historical example of the first VOA broadcast would not be accurate at all if it refers to U.S. foreign policy influence at VOA. It might be accurate to say, however, that VOA journalists never intentionally tried to slant the news if they could resist it and they would never lie. That is not the same as saying that U.S. foreign policy establishment played no role in VOA news programming. It played a substantial role at least until 1976, and even to some degree afterwards until the Voice of America became basically ungovernable and totally mismanaged in recent years.
It would be also inaccurate to suggest or even to imply that anybody in Congress now wants to allow renewed interference with VOA news. If both Democrats and Republicans wanted it to happen, they would not have put elements of the VOA Charter into the proposed legislation. In addition to mismanagement at the agency level, lawmakers appear to be primarily concerned that VOA is in fact not fulfilling the obligations of its 1976 Charter.
The VOA Charter already requires VOA to report on and explain U.S. government’s policies. If VOA had done this effectively, Congress would have no reason to interfere. Legislators wanted to make sure that VOA, which is 100% funded by U.S. taxpayers, would follow the law, but in the process they may have chosen wording that is not precise enough and could be interpreted in various ways.
We do not blame Mr. Pessin for raising alarm. We are also not entirely satisfied with some of the wording in the bill, but we strongly support its reform package. This is the most important part of the legislation. Without it, there will not only be no journalistic independence at VOA; there may not be any VOA. Congress has the power to shut it down if it feels that it no longer serves U.S. interests.
We agree with Mr. Pessin that VOA news must be accurate and balanced to be credible. But while we also agree with him that the bill is not perfect and could use some amendments, we find that his commentary, perhaps inadvertently or perhaps intentionally, also hints by omission at one of the greatest threats to VOA’s journalistic independence — the senior management at the Voice of America and at the agency.
Perhaps if Mr. Pessin was not afraid of potential consequences of speaking out against mismanagement at his own organization, we believe that he would have included this absolutely critical element in his commentary. Then and only then would his article have balance that VOA journalists are told by the VOA Charter to have in all of their VOA news reports.
While this was not a VOA news report but Mr. Pessin’s private commentary, as he clearly states, it is a well known fact that the fully bipartisan bill, voted for unanimously by all Democrats and all Republicans in the House Foreign Affairs Committee, is mostly about fixing serious management failures at the Broadcasting Board of Governors (BBG), the International Broadcasting Bureau (IBB) and the Voice of America. One of the big concerns members of Congress have is that VOA executives are in fact not obeying the VOA Charter.
Let’s hope that this bill will receive some amendments and will force future Voice of America executives to obey the VOA Charter. We do not hold out much hope for the current management team.
To protect the integrity of VOA programming and define the organization’s mission, the VOA Charter was drafted in 1960 and later signed into law on July 12, 1976, by President Gerald Ford. It reads:
The long-range interests of the United States are served by communicating directly with the peoples of the world by radio. To be effective, the Voice of America must win the attention and respect of listeners. These principles will therefore govern Voice of America (VOA) broadcasts:
1. VOA will serve as a consistently reliable and authoritative source of news. VOA news will be accurate, objective, and comprehensive.
2. VOA will represent America, not any single segment of American society, and will therefore present a balanced and comprehensive projection of significant American thought and institutions.
3. VOA will present the policies of the United States clearly and effectively, and will also present responsible discussions and opinion on these policies. (Public Law 94-350)